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What is EMDR?

Curious about EMDR? You’re in the right place

As a therapist, like other craftsmen, I draw from and utilize a number of tools from my toolbox. You never know how individuals will respond to an intervention, and there is no one-size-fits-all treatment. One of the tools I have found myself using most often, though, is EMDR, or Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing. You may have come across it if you have been to therapy, have friends who sought healing for traumatic events, or have read through literature on trauma. In this post, I want to share some basic information on what EMDR is, how I utilize it, and why I love using it.

My first introduction to EMDR was in graduate school. I had a counseling theories assignment to interview a practicing therapist who felt that EMDR was a crock. I distinctly remember him saying “Watch my finger move back and forth? Give me a break.” EMDR was discovered and developed by Dr. Francine Shapiro. One day, while walking in nature, and thinking of her own trauma, Dr. Shapiro noticed that she began to feel better. She noticed that while walking, she had begun moving her eyes back and forth, and thirty years of research later, EMDR is one of the most effective treatments for trauma. Originally, it involved a finger or pen moving from side to side. The client follows it with their eyes for a number of sets, while the therapist inserts breaks in between to ask what they began to notice or remember/think of. Due to the fact that not everyone is able to utilize this form of processing due to eye deficiencies and conditions, EMDR has also been used with tactile buzzers, as well as auditory bilateral stimulations (side-to-side movements).

Basically, EMDR utilizes left and right movement in order to facilitate healing. Just like our physical body knows how to heal itself without our intervention, our mind is also able to do the same with a little help. With trauma, we are often overwhelmed by the emotion of a moment to venture too close to the memory. Just like a smoke detector, our minds begin telling us that approaching the memory is dangerous regardless of whether or not the event is happening again or not. Although EMDR is extensively researched, the exact mechanism to facilitate healing has not been identified. It has been noted that the movements mimic REM cycles from our sleep, and I believe the bilateral stimulation allows all parts of the brain to be engaged and work together to provide insight, understanding, and make sense of painful emotional memories.

What I love about EMDR is that it allows the client to take the lead. The client follows the lead of their mind, at times viewing aid from others, ways in which they were empowered amidst confusion and suffering, and empathy for others that hurt them that they had not previously noticed. If you were to watch an EMDR session, you would witness the therapist saying things like, “What did you notice?” “Go with that,” or some variation of these phrases. It might seem like we therapists are doing very little, but the therapist’s role is to monitor distress, and help their client stay grounded during processing, as well as gently guiding clients when they become stuck. It is amazing to see how the mind comes full circle to show clients insights that they had not seen after living with events for decades. From a practical perspective, we provide a safe witness for clients to share their harrowing journey with. At the end of the processing session, therapists also help clients make connections, process insights, and ground them to go back out into the world.

Some might think that EMDR is similar to hypnotism. I personally never really felt comfortable with the idea of hypnotism because for a moment, we give up our will and control of ourselves. In therapy, hypnotism is less about the work of the client and more about a therapist healing via a type of mental surgery. EMDR allows clients to remain lucid and conscious, and to fully engage and feel their trauma. This type of work does take a great deal of courage, as it means facing demons that have been long tucked away, but usually brings with it a peace and sense of control afterwards. The goal of EMDR is not to make you forget your trauma, but to help you to free yourself from being defined and limited by it. It is as if we are shrinking the boulder that you feel forced to carry.

If you do meet with an EMDR therapist, know that they will most likely not begin EMDR right away. Usually, there needs to be a period of trust built between therapist and client. Therapists may also utilize other methods of therapy before trying EMDR, and need sufficient time to determine whether or not their client is a good fit for EMDR. Therapists also lead clients through installing grounding techniques and resources prior to processing trauma. Perhaps most importantly, a target sequence is developed. A target sequence is a hierarchy of events contributing to negative beliefs we believe about ourselves, as well as a positive hierarchy of events that demonstrate the opposite of the negative belief. EMDR is not only about mitigating the impact of negative events, but also training your brain to look at the positive events that support positive adaptation and growth. In this way, EMDR is very structured and in line with the highly researched form of therapy known as Cognitive Behavioral Therapy or CBT. It is helpful for me to have a common road map of areas to process and work through that was developed in partnership with my clients. I appreciate the balance that EMDR affords in allowing me to collaborate with clients and guide them in processing their trauma, in a structured, safe environment where they can explore their memories and come to peace with them.

If you are curious about therapy with EMDR, you can submit any questions through our “Contact Us” page!

By Mark

Photo by Amanda Dalbjörn on Unsplash

#Counseling #EMDR #Mark

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